How to plant seeds of faith with strangers.

When having a conversation with someone who is ignorant or hostile to Catholic teaching, a reasoned, gentle defense is most effective

By Eric Sammons

You are sitting at your son’s soccer game, enjoying the crisp weather and your boy’s joy for the game. Then you hear someone nearby say “Catholic Church,” then “divorce”; suddenly the hair on your neck stands on end and your body tenses.

You realize that two parents next to you are criticizing the Church; they notice you looking at them and ask, “What do you think?”

Now that we live in a post-Christian world, every one of us encounters situations like this. The Catholic Church teaches certain precepts that are simply unacceptable — antithetical, even — to the modern ethos. Standing by those precepts, we open ourselves to criticism and even attack. Furthermore — and sadly — there are scandals surrounding some Church figures that open Catholics up for easy condemnation.

Be prepared

So what are Catholics to do? How do we respond? What are our obligations in these situations?

In a time of persecution in a deeply pagan culture, our first pope, St. Peter, wrote to his fellow Christians, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pt 3:15, RSV). This is an oft-quoted Scripture passage, espe-cially among evangelists and apologists, but not quoted as frequently are St. Peter’s next words, “yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pt 3:15b, RSV).

Thus we have the guidelines laid out for how we are to react when our faith is challenged or defamed:

◗ Be prepared to make a defense.

◗ Do so with gentleness and reverence.

So, how do we go about following St. Peter’s command?

Sizing up the situation

Practically speaking, one of the first steps to take when defending the Faith from attack is sizing up the situation — the person challenging the Church, the surrounding audience and the specific topic being addressed. Each of these factors helps determine the appropriate response a Catholic gives when a “hot-button” topic is brought up in public.

To “be prepared” means, initially, evaluating, however roughly, the motivations of the person whom you are addressing. There is a big difference between a person who loudly declares, “The Catholic Church is the greatest force for evil in the world today” and one who quietly tells you “I could never have as many children as you do.” Both are thinking contrary to an authentic Catholic worldview, but they are likely to be worlds apart when it comes to their attitude toward the Church.

Usually the situation is not as clear-cut as the two examples given, so it is a good practice to assume the best motivations on the part of the other person. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:

“Even though you see something very bad about your neighbor, don’t jump immediately to conclusions, but rather make excuses for him interiorly. Excuse his intention, if you cannot excuse his action. Think that he may have acted out of ignorance, or by surprise, or accidentally. If the thing is so blatant that it cannot be denied, even so, believe it to be so, and say inwardly: the temptation must have been very strong” (Sermon on the Canticle of Canticles, 40).

It is always better to assume the best and be wrong than to believe the worst and be mistaken in that regard. By taking for granted that the other person’s intentions are in some respect good, one elevates the conversation and may actually bring out the best in the other person.

For example, if someone challenges the Church’s opposition to abortion, you can start with, “I know you must care deeply about women in crisis pregnancies …” and then explain why abortion is always a bad and harmful choice for the women involved. Even if the other person does not really care about pregnant women, you have shown clearly that you do.

Another factor in defending the Faith is the situation itself: Is this a private conversation or a public debate? If public, who is the audience — others who distrust the Church or are ignorant of its teachings? Often Jesus would use an attack by public leaders as an opportunity to instruct all those who were present. We can do likewise.

But we must be aware how ignorant most people are when it comes to the Catholic faith. The sad reality is that many Americans get the bulk of their knowledge of Church teaching from The Washington Post or The New York Times. When defending the Faith, we can never presume prior knowledge even about the most basic aspects of Catholicism. We live in a society, after all, in which claiming to have been an altar boy as a youth qualifies a person as an expert on all things Catholic.

In sizing up the situation we must also consider the topic at hand. More specifically, we must understand that certain issues personally impact the life of the person we are addressing. This is especially true when discussing topics concerning sexuality, such as abortion, contraception, extramarital relations, divorce and homosexuality.

Today it has become much easier for a person to accept that God is three persons sharing one divine nature than to admit that abortion is immoral, even though the former proposition is much more difficult to comprehend. This is because abortion can have a more immediate impact on someone’s life, especially for a woman who has had an abortion herself.

Part of St. Peter’s advice that we defend the Faith with “gentleness and reverence” is recognizing the hurt and misery that a person’s sins has upon them. Someone who has gone through a painful divorce and mistakenly believes she is now excommunicated from the Church may be angry with the Church and hurting deeply. A simple declaration that divorce is wrong is unlikely to pierce through such a broken heart. Instead, one must gently lead her to a deeper appreciation of the Church’s teaching on marriage, while accurately explaining the divorcée’s position in the Church.

Finally, each person has to know his own strengths and weaknesses. Although St. Peter’s command to “be prepared” applies to all Christians, it is also true that Our Lord gives each person certain talents, and thus each person should differ in how he responds to each specific situation. Our diverse talents are used by God in a variety of ways to build up the Body.

Our response

Sizing up the situation is only the beginning, of course. We must “be prepared,” but we must also actually “make a defense.”

The first step in giving an answer is knowing the answer. And the only way to do this is to study our Faith by reading the Bible, the Catechism and other books that explain the Church’s teachings clearly and without apology. (This assumes also that we are trying to live our Faith as well by attending Mass, receiving the sacraments, and living a life of prayer and good works.)

We do not have to be experts in theology and philosophy before we can open our mouths, but we do have an obligation to know the basics of the Church’s teachings and history. Most challenges against the Church today are rooted in ignorance; thus even a limited knowledge of the Faith is sufficient to refute these challenges.

Another important aspect of our response is our attitude. Keep in mind the words of St. Paul: “No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29). Or, as the old saying goes, honey attracts better than vinegar.

We all know the type of person who is constantly complaining about this and that subject — and how many people do they draw in and attract by that approach? We must be the light of the world, and light illuminates and brightens; it does not darken and oppress. At times we must expose mistakes and false arguments, but the focus of our response should be the beauty of the truth, not the ugliness of error.

Likewise, we should resist the urge to be sarcastic and snarky. We live in a post-“Seinfeld” world where sarcasm and irony rule supreme, but we should fight the desire to use these as weapons in our arsenal. Sarcasm too often attacks the individual instead of the argument, and in defending the Faith we should always be aware that the opposing party is a person created in the image and likeness of God.

Treating him as anything less is an affront to the dignity of a human person.

A final note about our response: We are called to be defenders of the Faith, not defensive about it. Since many of the teachings of our Church run contrary to the modern zeitgeist, there are people who believe those teachings to be laughable and ridiculous. This can easily lead us into a defensive posture — either apologizing for what the Churchteaches or attacking those who don’t accept it. We have nothing to be defensive about: It is this culture which has called black white and evil good. What we believe is eminently reasonable and is the best way to live for every person on earth. It has been tested over the centuries and accepted as true by some of the most brilliant minds in history.

Our duty is to explain that faith and trust that open minds will see the beauty that resides in that truth.

Results

Now that we have sized up the situation and given a response, what can we expect as a result? One of the biggest mistakes a Catholic can make is to expect immediate positive results. In our instant-gratification culture we may be tempted to expect others to respond immediately to our arguments and to change their positions on the spot. This will almost never happen. In my own experiences explaining the Faith to those opposed to it, I have never had a person tell me on the spot that he is wrong and I am right. However, I have had people approach me months, even years, later to say they considered the Church’s position more carefully after our discussion and eventually changed their mind.

Our job as evangelists and apologists is to present the truth in an attractive fashion, nothing more. We can never convince another person of the truth of the Faith — only the Holy Spirit can. We must simply plant seeds which the Holy Spirit can bring to fruition. Typically a person must encounter a proposition dozens of times before he will assent to it; it is unlikely that we will happen to be the last one in that line — especially if we are a stranger.

But if we have done our jobs properly, then we will have helped bring another person one step closer to Christ and his Church.

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18 Responses to How to plant seeds of faith with strangers.

  1. Mimi says:

    What a wonderfully helpful and practical post. Thank you.

  2. Brother Burrito says:

    Teresa,

    Well said. Reading this article has made me reflect on how poorly I treat others online who disagree with my worldview. In real life, this never happens, due to the many cues we have of the other person’s humanity (facial expressions, body language and tone of voice etc). ‘Internet forum sociopathic disorder’ might be a good psychiatric label for what grips us sometimes. Mea maxima culpa! The only cure is eternal self vigilance, and rationing of the activity, imho.

  3. toadspittle says:

    .
    “Someone who has gone through a painful divorce and mistakenly believes she is now excommunicated from the Church may be angry with the Church and hurting deeply. A simple declaration that divorce is wrong is unlikely to pierce through such a broken heart. “

    This puzzles Toad. Surely, under those circumstances the the sensible thing to say to the divorced person is, “I have good news for you – you’re not excommunicated at all!”

  4. toadspittle says:

    “Now that we live in a post-Christian world…”

    Does anyone on CP&S believe this? Toad doesn’t. And people on here keep saying how many converts are arriving each day.

  5. joyfulpapist says:

    Yes, a wonderful post. Thank you.

  6. The Raven says:

    Toad

    I wouldn’t describe this as a post Christian world. Although I occasionally think of it as a pre-Christian world.

  7. savvysrdc says:

    Thanks for this great post. I have been guilty of striking back a lot of times too.
    Raven, I agree that we are in a pre-Christian world. Reading the church fathers, is important today, because the early Christians dealt with the same issues we face today.

  8. toadspittle says:

    .
    Interesting that Savvysrdc talks of “striking back.” It struck Toad that, as (re the ref to the New York Times, etc.) the writer of his homily is presumably from the States, he should include, among his advice on dealing with the ignorant and/or hostile, the suggestion that one first makes sure that the ignorant and hostile are not carrying a firearm.
    Some Americans take religion as seriously as people did in Raven’s “pre-Christian” middle ages.
    That is, the person asserting that “the Catholic Church is the greatest force for evil, etc.,” is far more likely to be another sort of Christian than an Atheist.
    Atheism is unfashionable in the States these days.
    No, Raven, Toad doesn’t get the ‘pre-Christian’ bit. Unless it might be irony, which is fine. Because in America, they speak of little else but religion. For better or worse.

    And is he mistaken about the Catholic’s ‘divorce’ answer?

  9. Mimi says:

    I think, Toad, that it is not a sin to be a divorcée, but one must live a chaste life thereafter, remembering that, whatever one’s civil status, one is still married in the eyes of God. It is presumably the “chaste life” that one has to explain gently but firmly to the hurt and angry person. ;)

  10. manus2 says:

    Please keep the peope of New Zealand in your prayers in the aftermath of the horrendous earthquake.

  11. savvysrdc says:

    Toad,

    I have never struck back at someone physically. It’s true that the hard-line Protestants in America are more likely to attack us than atheists, but you have to remember that the atheists in these countries are Puritan atheists, which sets them apart from atheists in countries with or that once had a Catholic majority.

    The Anti-Catholicism that was once part of the Protestant establishment, has shifted to the secular establishment.

    Classical Christianity was based on both the divine law and the natural law. Luther got rid of the natural law and kept the divine law, i.e. faith without reason. The secularists after him got rid of the divine law and replaced with with only human reason, i.e. reason without faith.

    They both cannot leave the Catholics alone.

    The pre-Christian we refer to does not include Protestant thought.

    If you read Justin Martyr in the 1st century, you will realize we are back there once again.

  12. kathleen says:

    I agree: this is a fantastic post.

    I have often found myself in a position of having to defend the Faith. Sometimes it is very very difficult! There is a big difference between enquiring non-Catholics (and sometimes Catholics who don’t know the teachings of their Faith) and those who are only out to attack or insult the Catholic Church. With this latter bunch there is little point in trying to reason with them, but charity is necessary at all times, even if they have cut you to the core by their criticism.

    Fr Mitch Pacwa (of EWTN) gives a very good tip when dealing with someone who wants to argue with you about the Faith. Keep focused! Don’t let him/her lead you all over the place, as in that way you will find yourself on the defensive; keep to one aspect of the Church’s teaching at a time. (Jehovah Witnesses in particular try these crafty tactics.)

    Our Catholic Faith is so wonderful, so beautiful, containing a Truth and Reason all those with an open mind can come to see and believe in. So planting seeds of the Faith is a privilege, and one we should do with enthusiasm and love.

  13. savvysrdc says:

    Kathleen,

    I do agree that keeping to the points discussed and not talking about anything that’s not relevant works. I generally avoid conservations with those who are hostile, because you do want to give what is holy to dogs.

    Our sacramental system is based on reason and the order of creation. People can deny that something exists and live on the Truman show, but it would still be the Truman show.

    It’s like people are being programmed to be on the Truman show and they call us brainwashed.

  14. toadspittle says:

    “because you do want to give what is holy to dogs.”

    Says Savvysrdc. Toad assumes she meant to put a “not” in there, between “do and “want.”

    However, if she did not, Toad utterly agrees with her. If humans want to see real goodness at work daily, they should look closely at dogs. (or canaries, or cats, or crocodiles.)

  15. golden chersonnese says:

    Manus appeals: Please keep the people of New Zealand in your prayers in the aftermath of the horrendous earthquake.

    Manus, indeed. Appalling loss of human life and great physical and emotional damage, even to the city’s two cathedrals, Christchurch Anglican Cathedral and the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

    See here for details:

    http://www.chch.catholic.org.nz/?sid=2700

  16. joyfulpapist says:

    Here are some before and after photos of some of Christchurch’s buildings, including both cathedrals: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/image.cfm?c_id=1&gal_cid=1&gallery_id=116929#7381709

  17. Gertrude says:

    Relieved you are OK Joyful. Of course, our prayers are with you and your country both now and in the days ahead.

  18. joyfulpapist says:

    Thank you, Gertrude. I don’t suppose there is anyone in New Zealand that doesn’t have someone – friend or family – in Christchurch or Lyttleton. We’re a very small, very close country. My own family has a number of cousins there, and we’ve not yet heard from all of them. The aftershocks have been going on since 4 September last year, when the first big one hit. But they were dying down, and people were beginning to think they could get back to normal. This latest one is now setting off its own aftershocks – 15 just in the last six hours, more than 100 since the one on Tuesday. This makes the recovery effort so dangerous as weakened structures are shaken again and again. Please pray for the rescuers, and for the families of the missing and lost.

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